A postdoctoral researcher has spoken out about her “shock and disbelief” at “sexist”, “sarcastic” and “patronising” comments she received in a manuscript review.
An anonymous peer reviewer suggests that the paper, written by two female researchers, should include at least one male author to make sure that the data were interpreted correctly, and says that only men have the personality necessary to make it to the top jobs in science.
The journal in question said that it regretted the “tone, spirit and content” of the review.
Fiona Ingleby, research fellow in evolution, behaviour and environment at the University of Sussex, and Megan Head, a postdoctoral researcher at the Australian National University, submitted a paper to the journal PLOS ONE looking at the progression of PhD graduates to postdoc positions in the life sciences.
In an email to the authors on 27 March, the journal rejected the paper on the grounds that “the qulaity [sic] of the manuscript is por [sic] issues on methodologies and presentation of resulst [sic]”.
The email contained comments from one peer reviewer who listed a series of concerns with the paper. Dr Ingleby posted extracts of the text on Twitter on 29 April, but Times Higher Education has seen the whole review.
The reviewer makes objections to the way that the researchers interpreted the results of a survey of 244 people with a PhD in biology, which the authors use to conclude there is gender bias in academia.
In offering an alternative interpretation of the data, the reviewer says: “It could perhaps be the case that 99% of female scientists make a decision in mid-life that spending more time with their children is more important to them than doing everything imaginable to try to get one of the rare positions at the utter pinnacle of their field.”
The reviewer goes on: “Or perhaps it is the case that only some small portion of men (and only men) have the kind of egomaniac personality disorder that drives them on to try to become the chief of the world at the expense of all else in life.”
The reviewer also suggests that male doctoral candidates may have co-authored more papers than females because they can work on average 15 minutes longer per week. “Such a small difference of average effort could easily be due to marginal gender differences of physiology and health,” the reviewer says.
“So perhaps it is not so surprising that on average male doctoral students co-author one more paper than female doctoral students, just as, on average, male doctoral students can probably run a mile race a bit faster than female doctoral students,” adds the reviewer.
In a separate excerpt the reviewer says that the fact that men have “marginally better health and stamina” may also be why they publish in better journals than women, rather than any gender bias.
“I am not saying this is a fact; this is simply another possible explanation of the thin data available here,” the reviewer adds.
The reviewer makes several suggestions to improve the paper. Among them is the comment that it would benefit from “one or two male biologists”. These men should at least give the paper an internal peer review or “better yet” act as co-authors “in order to serve as a possible check against interpretations that may sometimes be drifting too far away from empirical evidence into ideologically biased assumptions”, the reviewer says.
Dr Ingleby told Times Higher Education: “Besides the totally inappropriate sexist comments, the review was full of unconstructive, unspecific criticism…The tone of the review was unnecessarily sarcastic and patronising, and littered with the kinds of petty remarks that I tweeted about.
“My initial reaction was just shock and disbelief…to see a reviewer make such clearly sexist comments was shocking and a bit upsetting,” she added.
Dr Ingleby and her co-author have about 40 published papers between them, and she said that they are open to criticism of their work. She added that she could appreciate that it was “an extreme example of bad peer review”, but said: “If this is what a reviewer is thinking, then it will still affect the quality of the peer review.”
“The reviewer stated their opinions as facts throughout the review, without once bothering to support these opinions with any references, and at points their opinions completely contradicted published research that we had cited in the manuscript,” she added.
A spokesman for PLOS said: “PLOS regrets the tone, spirit and content of this particular review.”
He added that the journal takes peer review “seriously”, is “diligently and expeditiously” looking into the matter and that an appeal is in process.
“PLOS allows academic editors autonomy in how they handle manuscripts, but we always follow up if concerns are raised at any stage of the process,” he said.
“Our appeals policy also means that any complaints of the review process can be fully addressed and the author given opportunity to have their paper re-reviewed.”